The author of Judges was not content to blandly state the waywardness of God’s people. He arranged his material in such a way as to display the degree of shameful behavior that characterized Israel. During the period of the Judges, few were faithful to the law.
The initial description of Micah’s household magnifies what the author of Judges emphasized in the story of Jephthah in Judges 11. Self-serving religious activity is often characterized by attempts to coerce God. In Judges 17, Micah and his mother attempted to manipulate God not through a rash vow but by means of religious objects and institutions. When Micah’s mother received 1,100 pieces of silver, she did what was right in her own eyes saying, “I personally consecrate the silver to the LORD for my son’s benefit to make a carved image overlaid with silver” (Judg 17:3). She made an idol to the Lord—utter disregard for the law. But Micah’s unfaithfulness went further. He “had a shrine, and he made an ephod and household idols, and installed one of his sons to be his priest” (Judg 17:5). With this pseudo-religious rubric in place, when a wandering Levite inquired of Micah if he could stay with him, Micah hired the Levite as his own private household priest (Judg 17:7-12). Micah said, “Now I know that the LORD will be good to me, because a Levite has become my priest” (Judg 17:13).
But Micah would soon discover that idols and a priest were no substitute for true devotion to God. Since Micah had hired his priest, his priest was for hire. Judges 18 records that when the Danites sent spies to explore the land to the north and came to the hill country of Ephraim, they stayed at Micah’s house. They recognized the southern accent of the Levite from Judah who was serving as Micah’s personal priest (Judg 18:2-4). When the Danites arose to overtake Laish, they plundered Micah of his idols and his priest (Judg 18:11-17). The Levite was persuaded, even pleased, by the Danites’ appeal when he heard them say, “Come with us and be a father and a priest to us. Is it better for you to be a priest for the house of one person or for you to be a priest for a tribe and family in Israel?” (Judg 18:19). Everyone in Israel was practicing their religion in a way that seemed right in their own eyes.
The story of Micah and his priest in Judges 17-18 reveals that many in Israel thought God’s blessing could be secured by (partial) conformity to various elements of their cultic system, like having a Levite as a household priest. Some in the days of the New Testament held to these practices, especially circumcision and Sabbath keeping, in hopes of earning God’s favor and securing temporary blessings based upon superstition. The New Testament writers argued that these religious practices were not an end in themselves but part of the broader storyline of Scripture that unfolds God’s redemptive work in Christ.
(1) Paul exhorted the Colossians, “Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elemental forces of the world, and not based on Christ” (Col 2:8).
(2) The author of Hebrews wrote, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Don’t be led astray by various kinds of strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be established by grace and not by foods, since those involved in them have not benefited” (Heb 13:8-9).